First, I know there are exceptions to the above meme like ‘Brave’ and ‘Peter Pan’. That’s not the point here.
A recent thought crossed my mind and led me to look at the parentage of the champions. I have 2 orphans by murder of parents, 1 orphan by battlefield death of parents, 1 orphan by getting separated from parents, and 2 with both parents alive. Due to spoiler issues, I’m not going into details about them. All I will say is that one of the heroes with living parents has a lot of family dysfunction. That leaves ONE with a family life that is unmarred by death or loss. A really interesting result that I created so casually without a second thought.
It isn’t really strange to have characters with dead or simply missing parents. The orphan turning into a hero is fairly common even before Harry Potter. Some stories don’t even touch on the parents, which people don’t really question depending on the genre. A big reason for this is to give the sense that the hero has no family to look out for him or her. It creates a sense of isolation when the character heads into danger. Mom and dad aren’t around to protect them or give advice. It’s an important piece of social foundation that is missing. You can replace it with a mentor type, but there is a unique sensation that comes off a parent/child dynamic. Even adopted parents have this. I think it stems from an interest in more than the hero’s skills and future. A mother and father will show concern for their child in all aspects. Possibly even becoming an obstacle that turns into one of those standard ‘rebellion’ stories.
Another reason for killing or removing parents is because it is an easy way to put angst and pain into a character. Want your hero to lose faith or scream helplessly to the heavens? Want him to be emotionally numb or out for brutal revenge? Well, one good way to do that is to have the bad guys kill mommy. Maybe the father, but the mother tends to be in there somewhere. With fathers, you tend to have the absent, unknown, or died before the story began scenario. I don’t think killing daddy has the same impact as killing mommy. We tend to put more weight behind the mother/child relationship since most stories put fathers in the provider role instead of the caretaker one. Then again, there’s always Inigo Montoya.
Now I do think genre and setting play a role in this. A world where violence is common would have a higher chance of set an event happening. For example, a post-apocalyptic dystopia like the Shattered States. We expect there to be death in such a world and parents tend to be fair game since they’re working on protecting their children. The bad guys are more inclined to kill here too. Now, a genre like Romance might not have such a ‘death friendly’ setting. There are ways to do it, but going too far could make things a little far-fetched. If the female lead lost her mother to cancer and father to a mugging while the male lead lost his mother to a bizarre zoo accident and his father died in the boxing ring then you may have gone too far. All of those are viable by themselves or in pairs, but sometimes it gets silly when everyone is an orphan by extreme circumstances. How often do protagonists’ parents die of old age anyway? I guess you have those elderly kings that pass on and leave a bunch of heirs to fight over the kingdom. By the way, that always ends with the bastard child nobody knew about inadvertently stumbling his or her way to the throne.
This is a very big topic that everyone has their own opinion on since everyone has a different sense of family. Even those in the same position will find that their thoughts on the subject vary. As far as fiction goes, I can come up with several theories as to why there is a parent killing tradition. Builds up the hero, removes characters with impact, makes the villain seem more evil, sets up a backstory, and many more.
So, what do you think about this part of fiction?